A brief walk from Hangangjin subway stop (line 6) near Itaewon is the Leeum Gallery, set up by Samsung. No expense has been spared on the building itself, with prestigious foreign architects engaged to build it, and an impressive collection of artworks.
The building itself is very spacious, and has three main sections. Older artworks are displayed in the galleries around the Guggenheim-style teacup-shaped atrium (left – complete with spiral walkways): Koryo and Chosun ceramics, including many national treasures, ink paintings, and Buddhist artefacts. The second section is devoted to modern and contemporary works, both Korean and international, while the third section, under the main entrance, is set aside for special exhibitions.
Currently on show are late Chosun dynasty ink paintings. You are greeted by some masterpieces by Owon (Jang Seung-eop, 장승업 – the subject of Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaeseon). Seeing these works up close and life-size is a completely different experience from seeing them reproduced in a book. You can see the individual brush strokes and appreciate the deftly skilled work involved.
The gallery is well laid out, with effort taken to provide descriptions in English for many of the exhibits.
Gallery 2 has three floors: the top floor is devoted to post-war Korean art. Out of the lifts you are faced with a large blue Kim Whanki, and the standard is maintained throughout the space. There is a good collection of figurative works from the 50s and 60s, including Chung Kyung-ja (Delight, an unusual picture of a bridal party in pastel colours) and Chang Uc-chin (whose naively styled works have achieved considerable popularity). And as you leave, a large Suh Se-ok ink painting, Dancers (1989). Two of the pictures which most stick in the memory are the non-abstract works from the 80s. Interesting because one thinks of the 80s as the decade of minjung art at one extreme and the continuation of the austere monochrome at the other, and these are neither. There’s a very bold ink painting of temples and mountains by Kim Ki-chang (Mountain Temple), obviously reminiscent of more classical works but interesting for the randomness of the orientation of the different temples — some are slightly skewed, giving a disturbing effect of things not being quite right — while the hills are little more than big green splodges of paint. The other is a 1984 work by Park Saeng-kwang of a shaman, in vibrant bright blues and reds. Comical little dokkebi lurk in the bottom of the picture. Both works revisit Korea’s classical genres in a reaction against the abstract monochrome movement.
The next floor down contains foreign art of more or less the same period. The most eye-catching work is the one you first see as you enter: Aanish Kapoor’s untitled dark laquered mirror (left) which draws you in to contemplate it. Other interesting works are a sketch study by Christo for his orange “Gates” project in New York’s Central Park, and Cy Twombly’s Untitled (right) which seems superficially to be the inspiration for Park Seo-bo’s ecriture series.
The lowest gallery contains a mixture of Korean and foreign contemporary work. Among the Korean works are a Lee Bul cyborg, a video installation by Paik Nam-June and a large sculpture by Suh Do-ho — Some/one: a life-size armoured warrior (below) whose over-long chain-mail spreads out on the floor all around him is constructed of individual military ID badges.
Coffees in the museum cafe cost 6,000 Won.
Well worth a visit, but you need to book in advance as the entry is controlled, ensuring that the gallery is never over-crowded.